Reward & Punishment III:

The True Purpose of Mitzvahs


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Over these past few weeks we have acquainted ourselves with the famous, first mishna in Peyah, worthy of reiteration, as we return to it, attempting to resolve its most primary issues:


“These are the matters that have no required quantity: Peyah (the corner of the field left for the poor), first fruits, visiting the Temple on the three holidays, kindness to others, and Torah study.

These are the matters that man eats the fruits in this world, but the principle awaits him in the World to Come, and these are they: honoring parents, acts of kindness, hosting guests, generating peace among friends, and Torah study outweighs them all.” (Peyah, 1:1)


After due reflection, we are confronted with a number of questions:

1)      What commonality do all these mitzvahs share, to the exclusion of all others?

2)      What are the Earthly “fruits”, and what is the “principle” in the World to Come?

3)      In what measure does this mishna compare Torah study to the other mentioned mitzvahs, and in what manner does it “outweigh” them?

4)      Why do we recite this mishna each morning, and at that; why immediately subsequent to our blessings over the Torah, where we mention the concept of learning Torah “lishmah” – for learning’s sake with no ulterior motive?

5)      What primary message does this mishna wish to impart to us, and why is it the very first mishna in the order of agriculture, including gifts to the poor and the priests?


These mitzvahs are readily identified as “between man and man”. (The Rabbis state that “acts of kindness” includes all other interpersonal laws.)

The Rabbis further state that the “fruits” – or rather the ‘products’ of these mitzvahs – are the kind reciprocations we receive from those upon whom we bestow our kindness. This is explained as follows: I experience another human being going out of his way to make me happy. The response to someone who recognizes me, almost always is my kindness towards him; be it for the selfish motive of fostering further recognition of myself, or out of identification with those who recognize me…or for the right reason: he deserves my kindness regardless of his acts towards me, since God commanded me in kindness. Keep this last idea in mind.

Why must we be told in a mishna that this “produce” of mitzvah – reciprocal kindness – is not the principle, but leaves that principle untouched, or unconsumed? We now arrive at the core of this issue.



The Goal of Mitzvahs

It is my assessment that this mishna seeks to correct the notion that mitzvahs between man and man, have as their primary objective, an “Earthly harmony”. Now, while I do not deny this is “a” goal of these mitzvahs, I feel this unique mishna attempts to mature our evaluation of mitzvahs. The mishna teaches us that the “principle” of these mitzvahs, in fact, awaits us in the World to Come. This means that although we benefit in some manner from fostering harmony between individuals, this is not a mitzvah’s ultimate goal. The truth is that even these interpersonal mitzvahs seek to do good for others, only as a means to their perfect Earthly state where they can approach God. The kindness we are commanded to perform is itself, not an end, but to secure a tranquil life for others so they too might reach a love of God. So even these interpersonal mitzvahs target the higher good of the love of God.



All Good is Eternal by Definition

All God’s laws have one objective: man’s love of God, not man’s love of man. Fostering harmony may be a portion of the mitzvah’s good, but God’s wish for man is that we enjoy an eternal life attached to Him. Our Earthly stay is but for a few decades, if we are fortunate. Then, in retrospect, our lives are meaningless, as we are gone…unless our Earthly existence services our souls, so that we earn the World to Come. For even a human existence of 1000 years, eventually expires…forever. What ultimate good did these 1000 years serve this person, if the person’ soul is no longer existing, due to a corrupt life?

The true good, is what is eternal. For any good that expires, is not absolutely good, but only conditionally good. An example of a true good is “justice”. Justice is an attribute of God’s nature. Justice is therefore eternal. Justice is a good, because it partakes of God’s nature…and God is good. This refers to what is a good in terms of “principle” or virtues. How do we measure what is a good for man? It must be that which affords man an eternal life. When man attaches himself to true Torah values, his soul partakes of the eternal world, and man will then exist eternally in the World to Come. But if man does not partake of God’s will, and lives a hedonistic existence, his soul does not partake of anything eternal, so he dies like a beast.



True Purpose of Mitzvahs

Mitzvahs perfect us here, and for the World to Come. Thus, all mitzvahs must have as their primary goal an enduring good, which will apply to the World to Come. Thus, the good of any mitzvah cannot be measured in Earthly terms, but only in as much as the mitzvah brings us to a closer relationship with the Creator, what we experience in the next world. Therefore, the mishna teaches us that we must not view interpersonal mitzvahs as reaching their objective ‘here’, but rather, they reach their objective – their principle – in the next world, when we relate to God alone, and not humans. Some mitzvah’s perfect human relationships, but all mitzvahs perfect man’s relationship with God. This is what we mean that the principle awaits us in the World to Come.

Perhaps that is precisely why these few “interpersonal” mitzvahs were chosen…matters we might assume to have as their end, this human harmony. We are therefore taught otherwise: all mitzvahs have as their objective an increased relationship with God, not man. Yes, on Earth we enjoy their “fruits” (interpersonal harmony) but their true objective (principle) is to improve our concept of God, our value of His existence, His kindness, and His wisdom. This is the true benefit God makes available to any man or woman, bestowing eternal reward on those members of mankind who dedicate themselves to seeking out His Torah and His scientific or natural knowledge.

To underscore this very idea, our mishna concludes with the idea, “and Torah study outweighs them all”. The mishna wishes to stress that although kindness is crucial, nonetheless, ideational laws outweigh interpersonal laws, as they are more closely tied to knowledge, and love of God. Torah study is the greatest mitzvah, as it is the only vehicle through which we arrive at greater love of God, as Maimonides teaches in his last chapter of Laws of Repentance (10:6): “In proportion to one’s knowledge is his love of God: if one has little knowledge, then he has little love of God; and if he has great knowledge, then he has great love of God.” Therefore our mishna concludes in a high note, as essential as interpersonal laws are, Torah study is of a higher nature, and surpasses all other laws.



Part of Morning Prayers

We are now ready to answer ‘why’ we recite this mishna each morning, and ‘when’ we recite it.

Each morning we first recite “La-asoke B’Divrei Torah”, the blessing over Torah involvement, just as we bless God prior to all other mitzvahs. This blessing highlights Torah study “lishma”, our yearning to study with no ulterior motive, but to reach the level where we study purely based on genuine interest in God’s wisdom. We then recite “Asher Bachar Banu” (“You have chosen us” to give Your Torah) to express that we did nothing to deserve was God’s will to “select us”…again referring to Torah study in its true light, our great fortune having nothing to do with our merit. We are made appreciative of God’s gift.

Then…we recite this mishna. Why?

We do so for this reminder: just as we seek to study Torah as an end, we also remind ourselves to relate to other mitzvahs in this same capacity, i.e., for their true objective of fulfilling God’s will, not simply to foster good human relations, or some other temporary good. Additionally, relating to others in this manner is truly an expression of our love of God, the “principle” of this mitzvah.

Each morning, we are taught to study Torah and perform mitzvahs on their highest plains. God desires the best for us, so the Rabbis in formulating our blessings and prayers, inserted our mishna here, since it too embodies the very idea of worshipping God on the highest level, just as we mention in connection with Torah study lishma.

Reciting this mishna is a daily reminder that our interpersonal relationships are a means to love God, and not for other objectives. And when we relate to people on this level, we are not moved towards revenge, Lashon Hara, or holding grudges, since social approval and value is no longer our focus. Our value matures from a social nature, to a desire to fulfill God’s will.




This mishna commences the order of laws concerning agricultural gifts to the poor and priests, and for good reason. We are taught a proper philosophical approach when administering our tithes and gifts. Our mishna aims to divert our focus to God, in all laws, including when we relate to others. By elevating our focus from man, to God, in interpersonal laws, specifically when parting with our hard-earned dollars (grain), we better accomplish the mitzvah, avoiding miserly emotions typically encountered when commanded to give our money to others. Many of us feel, “Why can’t that poor person work hard like me? He is just as healthy.” We also might feel a need to break any identification with the poor; since poverty bothers us…we are threatened by the reality that I too might become impoverished. Socializing with the poor also smacks of an image we wish to avoid…since by nature, we seek the approval of others: “God forbid my friends see me talking to a disheveled poor man on the street”. The Torah, in fact, commands us to commiserate with the poor, not to simply give him money and walk away. Tzedaka seeks to elevate the esteem of the poor, so as to assist his return to dignity: a necessary emotion for reaching independence. Giving the poor a job is the highest level of charity, as they say, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach him to fish, he eats all his life.”




It is only with diligent study of the laws and Torah philosophies that we will arrive at the truth, removing emotional biases, and performing the laws because God desires charity, kindness, and justice. We will then become wise to identify false motives, and remove those elements impeding proper performance, as God desires. It matters none what our friends say, if we are found socializing with the poorly dressed street people. We are not given life to waste it seeking human applause. We answer to God in the end, not to man.

It is amazing how much of our lives we spend looking over our shoulders for human approval; how much we miss in life, from the fear that other people might talk. Insecurity also expresses itself in the religious sphere, as we mentioned last week the thousands who trekked to Meron based on the lies of religious Jews guaranteeing fertility, wealth and health…in exchange for their money. So many Jews blindly accepted the masses, even religious masses, despite their Torah violations.

Ultimately, we each must respond to God when we die. “Have we followed His Torah? Did we follow what was popular among Jews, or what is Torah-based and true to our minds? Are we pushing off Torah study in place of fancier homes and cars? Did we try to arrive at knowledge that meant something to us, or was simple rote activity the way we observed Shabbos and mitzvahs?” I don’t believe God will accept the defense of ignorance, when He gave each of us intelligence for the sole purpose of using it.

Are we simply living for the approval of others, or to arrive at real knowledge of God and His will? Only you can answer that question, and God will surely ask it.